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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Leading with the question: Radiolab’s Latif Nasser on building relationships with audiences despite distrust

RadioLab co-host Latif Nasser stands outside Vilas Hall on the UW–Madison campus. He smiles in the foreground; in the background, there is a white sign reading, "School of Journalism & Mass Communication, University of Wisconsin–Madison."
Radiolab co-host Latif Nasser stands at the entrance to Vilas Hall during his Fall 2022 visit to UW–Madison to serve as the Sharon Dunwoody Science Journalist-in-Residence. Photo credit: Althea Dotzour.

Erin Gretzinger is a 2022-23 fellow at the Center for Journalism Ethics and an undergraduate student in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Latif Nasser is the co-host of Radiolab, the award-winning WNYC Studios show known for its innovative sound design and in-depth storytelling. Founded 20 years ago by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, Radiolab covers a wide variety of stories across scientific, political and social subjects. 

Nasser joined Radiolab after obtaining a PhD in the History of Science from Harvard University in 2014. In 2020, Nasser was named a Radiolab co-host alongside Lulu Miller following Krulwich’s retirement. When Abumrad retired in 2022, Nasser and Miller became the sole hosts of the show. 

During his time at Radiolab, Nasser has tackled stories ranging from horseshoe crabs’ “baby blue blood drive” to how human immune dysfunction may be connected to our Neanderthal ancestors (inspired by his own experience). Nasser was also the host of a miniseries called “The Other Latif,” which followed the story of how a man who shared his name ended up at the Guantanamo Bay detention center. Beyond his work at Radiolab, Nasser hosts and produces Connected, a Netflix science documentary series.

This fall, Nasser served as the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Science Journalist in Residence. During his visit to campus in October, we spoke with Nasser about how to cultivate relationships with new audiences at a time when science journalists face daunting challenges posed by misinformation and record public distrust. 

Amid misinformation and declining trust, science journalists face an uphill battle in breaking through to the public and framing stories in clear yet compelling ways. How do you draw in listeners who are not familiar with or interested in science? 

The answer to me – nine times out of 10 – to that question is story. It’s story and character. It is being able to get intimate with a person who you don’t just hear, but who you feel for. Maybe that person is a scientist. Maybe that person is a patient with a disease. It could be any kind of person, but if you frame it the right way, you can win over a lot of people – even someone who would swear, “This is the most boring thing, and I never could care about X or Y thing.” 

And then, you tell the story from inside: what it was like to “oh my god” discover that thing that changed everything, or what it was like to have this sickness and not know where to turn and be totally bewildered – but then you find this one thing and this could be the thing that saves you. So it’s story –  story is what hooks people in the same way that your favorite bingeable show does. Use those same tricks, use those same moves. At Radiolab, we’re lucky because our form is conducive to that. 

Radiolab is also known for its immersive storytelling. How do you walk the ethical line between providing entertaining and captivating narratives while ensuring listeners fully understand all faucets of these often-convoluted topics?

That’s a tricky thing in every story. Especially in the last few years, we’ve been asking all these questions like: why this story? Why this perspective of all the perspectives that we could take on this? Of all the angles, why are we prioritizing this perspective and giving this one this amount of airtime and brain time and heart time? If we swivel the imaginary camera over here from this perspective, would this story be more interesting and surprising, or would it be more honest and fair if we took this or that perspective? For every story in every pitch meeting, those are the conversations that we have – and we have those conversations deeply.

Kind of the fun of Radiolab is we often try to take a multiplicity of perspectives, and that’s rewarding, too. It’s still a hard question – and not to let us off the hook – but baked into the way that we edit stories is that people finish each other’s sentences. It’s never just one POV. We try really hard to have multiple POVs and to be cool with and present side by side when sources see it differently and their takes are different. It’s a complicated thing, but that’s okay – memory, knowledge, science, all these things, it is hard to tell a story. So embracing the ambiguity of that, I think, is really important. 

The other important thing is really investigating your blind spots and trying to pull in voices and perspectives that either we specifically, or the news in general, has excluded. That’s a really important charge that we take very seriously and try our best to reckon with and address. 

Another aspect of Radiolab that sets it apart is the intimate involvement of hosts and producers, whose experiences are sometimes main sources in a story. How do you view and uphold objectivity while balancing the unique voices of reporters? What is the function of bringing reporters and producers into complicated science stories? 

It’s such a great question because it is a tradeoff, and I think we know it is a tradeoff everytime. There’s always that danger that you can make something totally self-centered, and it can take on a dimension where it isn’t really about the story, but it is really about me (the reporter). I think as much as anybody, you wince when you hear things that are so navel-gazing and self-involved. I’m allergic to that, and I really try not to do it. 

But on the other hand, I think that the value of that kind of reporter-, producer- and host-centric story-telling is a great throughline, and it really helps you as the listener. I also think that it’s just more honest. I think that there is an ethical responsibility to say, “Yeah, I don’t know everything. There are a lot of people who know a lot more about this than I do. And here are the people I talked to.” There’s also transparency in the reporter admitting, “This is why I think what I think, and these are the questions I’m asking – some I don’t have answers for, and some I do have answers for.” Seeing that thought process – and going back to the idea of blind spots – you, as a listener, can hear the blind spots. You can kind of judge for yourself how trustworthy you feel this reporting is. 

To me, the kind of usual thing you run into with science journalism is answers-first journalism – like the story that starts with the headline, “Studies show chocolate is good for you.” But oftentimes, because science doesn’t work like that, there’s gonna be another study a few weeks later that’s like, “Oh, no, chocolate is bad for you.” It’s just the opposite thing. Then, as a reader, you just feel kind of jerked around. So to me, this approach that we do is like I’m going to be totally honest by starting with questions first – like this is the thing I got interested in, here’s what took me to the story and here’s the journey I’m on. Then, as the listener, you’re with me to try to go find the answer to this question. Leading with the question, that’s just more honest, because we’re (journalists) dumb too. To be able to hear that – at least for me – it puts me at ease and it makes me more trusting, as opposed to “I have all the answers and here they are.” 

Intimacy and honesty: I value those two things more than I hate or worry about the danger of it becoming self-involved. 

Journalists across all mediums are trying to find ways to combat misinformation surrounding everything from election integrity and the COVID-19 pandemic to older challenges like climate change. How have you tackled this challenge in your science reporting?

Misinformation and disinformation are topics we’ve covered a lot. But in a more meta way, as a show, I think it goes back again to leading with the question and not the answer. If you’re really honest about the question at the start of a story, and you’re really honest about the steps about how you got to where you got – and what you don’t know – you can slowly build trust, which is the most important thing. 

There are other things, like fact checkers, that are real answers to this question, but the bigger question is really about framing. Do you go for the sensational click-bait headline that may be wrong or are you really trying your best to be honest and trustworthy? And the ground is raked against us. We know that lies travel faster online than true stories. For disinformation, people spread it way more and deeper and faster than true stories. Especially in COVID times, this is life and death stuff, so we take that burden really seriously. 

From where we sit, the best we can do is be trustworthy and take the job seriously by letting listeners know that we want to earn their trust. It is so easy to break trust, and it’s so hard to win it, but we believe in just being there every week and really trying our best. And then, when we do make mistakes, we try to own up to them. 

What is your advice for science journalists on how we can combat these trust and misinformation challenges facing the industry today?

Because we’ve all been conditioned to do it, the easy thing to do – especially if you are in a medium like print, online news or even social media – is to go in the default direction of finding the one-sentence headline takeaway from the science that feels like a definitive thing. But don’t puff up the thing that you have just so you have a better story, because you’re actually sort of cutting your nose off to spite your face. In the end, what you say is just going to be less powerful and impactful. 

You have to be honest and trust that people are grownups – they can understand that science is not going to provide all the answers to everything. In my life, in my career, I think I’ve valued the questions more than I’ve valued the answers. So go deep on the question. The answer may be a provisional answer, but to me, that’s the most honest way I can think of doing it. 

My other advice is to fact check. Fact check, it’s so big. Great advice, which I did, is early on in your career, work as a fact checker – even if just for a little while. You’ll learn so much. It is a humbling way of learning how hard it is to say anything, but it will ground your work in a way that I think is really, really profound. 

And then, this is something I told all the UW classes here that I’ve been lucky enough to visit, is this job is telling true stories. Both of those words are so important in these times – the “true” in these misinformation times and the “stories” in a time when we are so divided, where we write people off depending on their politics, what country they’re from or the color of their skin. Finding true ways to see, feel, empathize and hear from other people that are different from you – this is the time to do this. This is really, really pivotal work. The thing that I told all the students I talked to is that we need you. It takes a huge diversity of voices and perspectives and experiences to make the kind of journalism that will really make a difference and that will really help us right the ship in so many different ways. 

To the budding journalists out there: We need you. We really need your help. And this is exactly the right time to get in on the game. 

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